Why we take aim at the wrong targets

As with the Brexit vote many millennia ago, the peoples of Britain are slowly beginning to realise that things are gravely wrong all over our island. While this realisation is a step in the right direction, our inability to find the right target at which to aim our disquiet is shocking. Yet not all of this imprecision is our fault.

Most of the blame is aimed at the most visible products of a changing world – a world that is far beyond the control of ordinary individuals. With Brexit, it was immigrants: the ‘other’ who could easily be distinguished in the street by the language spoken or the colour of their skin.

In Cornwall, public figures like Rick Stein, and to a lesser extent Tim Smit, bear the brunt of discontent amongst the Cornish, not necessarily because they are the most culpable but because they are the most visible face of the exploitation to which ordinary Cornish people are vulnerable.

Regardless of culpability, they will continue to be blamed by disgruntled locals and be the target of attempted intimidation because we, as citizens, are completely unable even to comprehend the real forces behind this rapidly changing world, let alone address them. The real forces behind this change are nebulous and entirely invisible concepts like the free market: things that no singular person or organisation can be blamed for. This clashes with the human desire for a simple, quick and easy answer to our problems, hence we try and rationalise these feelings of weakness by choosing to lay the blame at the door of individuals who are merely symptoms or by-products of complex forces.

Rick Stein is undeniably selling a highly romanticised and fictionalised version of Cornwall that is perfect for TV, and perfect for his business interests, but nowhere near the reality for most within Cornwall. The Cornwall we see on TV is but one part of the picture – the most idyllic and attractive part. To those lucky enough to live on the coast, it is, ultimately, a compliment that Cornwall captivates so many; it is a special place that will not remain a secret in the social media age. It cannot be gatekept by purists forever because in the age of TV and the internet, eventually everything will become demystified. No longer will there be secret spots free from tourists.

The internet and social media are opaque forces beyond the control of any single individual. We are powerless to stop them exposing everything. They have their uses, but at the same time they are making the situation worse. The only thing that we could attempt to control is how much things change, rather than stopping the change outright. Just because Rick Stein has the platform to sell a collection of delightfully airbrushed images to people, some of whom come to Cornwall and run amok, doesn’t make him the public enemy number one we might wish him to be.

Who shapes the future?

Overexposure is just one part of the jigsaw. When Cornwall as a holiday resort starts to overtake Cornwall as a real place full of actual people, it starts to become a problem. Some would say this process is already well underway; others might argue that Cornwall will eventually become unrecognisable and generic. Who dictates the pace of life and the pace of change? Where do people find their inspiration to move down here: television and The Telegraph, perhaps?  

When people like Smit or ‘superior’ journalists at The Telegraph start running their mouths about what Cornwall needs or what the Cornish people are, their voices are heard solely because they have power, influence and financial clout behind them.

The distortion of reality of which Stein and Smit and the like are guilty is, unfortunately, nothing new. It is something that has been happening since the GWR advertising campaigns of the early 20th century, when Cornwall’s future prospects were appropriated by outsiders and shaped to fit the desires of others outside Cornwall, and nothing was done to stop it spiralling out of control. When a region loses its autonomy, it loses its ability to choose its own path, and that is what has happened to Cornwall. From the tourist economy to Westminster, Cornwall’s fate is no longer decided by the Cornish, and it is one of the most dispossessed and powerless regions in Britain and perhaps even further afield.

And this is where we are trapped: stepping blindly into a future decided by and designed for those who do not live here, because money dictates the pace of change, and money doesn’t flow so easily past the Tamar. This is the hurdle that no one has yet worked out how to overcome, because developers and investors move in the shadows and Cornwall Council is utterly spineless, unable even to pretend to mitigate the worst effects.

We regressively cling to a proud past, in lieu of a brighter future. We moan and whine about second-homers and tourists, as if the service economy is not an inevitable part of the post-industrial landscape in the Western world, where companies and manufacturers have long since realised that slaves and sweatshop workers in Asia can produce their goods for a fraction of the cost, without the inevitable ‘headache’ of trade unions demanding silly things like rights, safe working conditions, generous pay, breaks and days off.

The longer Cornwall continues to take aim at the wrong targets, the longer it will be stuck on the periphery, not focused on itself. But in a world hurtling headfirst into homogeneity, how can we not? All money originates in urban centres that Cornwall lacks, and the money that does trickle down does so privately and secretly.

What Cornwall really needs is access to this magic money tree without the devious middlemen of local and national politics, and developers and investors getting their greasy hands on cash that ordinary Cornish people need. Cornwall needs meaningful development, not sycophants who roll over at the first flash of an investor’s money.

What will it take – do we dispense entirely with serious suggestions from now on? Do we need an incredibly rare, benevolent and philanthropic individual from Cornwall to become a billionaire and invest in a way that benefits the people? Do we have to hope that someone shags their way into the Duchy of Cornwall, in the hope of inheriting at least a portion of the land and sway they hold?

Of course, these suggestions are frankly ridiculous and I mention them only because they are as absurd as the concept of actual change. The grim reality the world over, not just in Cornwall, is that the individual – even a collection of individuals – is powerless to stop the rampant march of ‘progress’ concocted in meetings that didn’t happen, in buildings that don’t exist, between people who weren’t there. We live lives shaped by the whim of investors, who pull the strings of councillors and politicians and make them dance to their tune.

We are not politically powerful; we are weak, and the weak inevitably lash out in foolish ways at the wrong targets. But what else can we do?